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Back in Africa

Preamble: It’s a giant pet-peeve of mine when people use the word “Africa” as though it’s a country, and not a gigantic and amazingly diverse continent.  It might seem to some that I’m doing just that in this blog post.  I assure you I’m not.  I know we’re in fact traveling to Morocco here, and not Africa-the-country, but the excitement and hesitation I talk about in the post are really and truly about stepping foot again on a continent that fascinates and challenges me.  I’ve never been to Morocco before, so I can’t talk about re-entering Morocco.  I can – and will – now talk about re-entering Africa.  Thereafter, I promise to write only about Morocco-the-country and to avoid sweeping statements about “Africa.”:)

On January 7th of this year, after touring around Africa for over three years, Bruno and I ferried ourselves and Totoyaya off the “Dark Continent” and onto the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, and Europe.

Goodbye Africa... or so I thought.

Goodbye Africa… or so I thought.

Less than eleven months later, we’re back in Africa.

As we drove, lightning-speed, through Spain’s Andalucían province, the reality of soon being back in Africa set in, and I couldn’t help but mentally list the challenges associated with travel in this region.  Most of the things I thought about were quite silly, in retrospect: the fact that electricity and hot water would be luxuries rather than givens; that toilets wouldn’t be up to the cleanliness standards I prefer; that I wouldn’t always be able to find special foods at grocery stores; and that I’d have to dress more conservatively than in Europe.

One thing on that list, however, wasn’t so silly; in fact, it’s the crux of my beef with travel in Africa.  I don’t blend in.

Yup, I’m a white girl (surprise!).  With blonde hair and blue eyes, to top it off.  I stand out in pretty much every country in Africa.  (And in the southern part of the continent, where there are native white Africans, the racial issues as so complex that it’s not necessarily beneficial to semi-blend-in there).  Standing out can be a challenge in Africa (or anywhere, really) because it can make you a target for touts, can lead to negative attention from men, and can box you into tourist-only interactions with locals.

Can you spot me in the crowd?

Can you spot me in the crowd?

It’d be great to be a chameleon, right?

I guess I’ve enjoyed being invisible in Europe.  I can sit at a café, take public transportation, or walk down a street and be totally ignored.  In Europe, I can pretend to be a local, at least until I open my mouth.

With all these challenges – both big and small – you might be asking yourself why, less than a year after leaving Africa, we were willingly ferrying ourselves back in.  There were practical reasons – our desire to avoid a European winter and our planned family reunion, for example.   But I think we were heading back into Africa, really, because we are perpetually drawn to it.  We weren’t really heading there at all, I truly think – we were being pulled back there.  Quite simply, we love Africa, challenges and all.

Just like when we set off to walk the Camino de Santiago, my mental enumeration of challenges was simply a way to prepare myself for our return, to wrap my mind around our new project. In this case, however, the activity was making me more hesitant than excited for our impending departure.

Practicalities of the Ferry Ride Between Spain and Morocco

That was my head-space as we organized our roll-on-roll-off (RORO) ferry from Spain to Morocco.  Thankfully, the experience was incredibly straightforward.  We visited Viajes Normandie Shipping Agency in Palmones (N36 10.765 W5 26.475), recommended by our overlanding friends as well as our guide book because they offer open return tickets, meaning you don’t have to pick your dates ahead of time. With a passport, our vehicle registration, and 200 euros cash, we had our return ticket ready in 10 minutes.

We bought our ferry tickets through this agency, as they offer open-ended return trips.

We bought our ferry tickets through this agency, as they offer open-ended return trips.

We

We’re not the only camping car headed to Africa, just maybe the smallest! :)

We chose to take the ferry from Algeciras (Spain) to Tangier Med (Morocco), but you can also go from Algeciras to Ceuta (which is a Spanish enclave on African soil) or Tarifa to Tangier City (Tarifa being at the southernmost tip of Spain).  All tickets are the same price, and our ferry ride was the longest, but we preferred arriving at the quieter port of Tangier Med than in a big city port, and we wanted to get all the immigration stuff done on the boat rather than at a land border, as those who arrive in Ceuta must do.

There are several companies (at least three that I know of) that ply the routes between Spain and Morocco, so there are ample departures.  Our company, FRS, currently departs every three hours from 9am – 9pm.  As such, we weren’t worried about not being able to depart on the date of our choosing – we didn’t reserve, but simply queued in the correct line at the port about an hour before our desired departure.  My passport received its Schengen exit stamp, we drove the vehicle into the boat ourselves, we walked up to the passenger deck, and that was that.

Waiting in the immigration line before boarding the ferry from Algeciras, Spain, to Tangier Med, Morocco.

Waiting in the immigration line before boarding the ferry from Algeciras, Spain, to Tangier Med, Morocco.

All aboard!  Our ferry to Morocco is in view!

All aboard! Our ferry to Morocco is in view!

Parking our vehicle on the car deck of our ferry.

Parking our vehicle on the car deck of our ferry.

It was a pleasant 90-minute ride on a fairly clean, practically empty boat (a totally different experience from our ferry ride between Sudan and Saudi Arabia to leave the continent earlier this year).  We had a picnic lunch (there is a restaurant on the boat, too) then stood outside on the stern to watch Europe fade from view and the African coast come into focus.  The Strait of Gibraltar is really narrow so you can actually see both continents at the same time, which is interesting.  There are reputedly a ton of dolphins in the strait, and sure enough, we saw a pod of about twenty of them swim past us (it happened too quickly to photograph, however).

When the boat docked in Morocco, we walked down to our vehicle and were out of the boat a few minutes later.  Our passports had been stamped on the boat (at the passport control desk on the passenger deck), but we had to go through customs at the port’s exit gate.  Our shipping agent had graciously prepared the forms we needed (a declaration of temporary importation form, or D16TER) for customs, but it still took about thirty minutes of waiting for the officers to process the paperwork.  That’s when I knew we were on African time again.

Goodbye Europe...

Goodbye Europe…

... hello Africa!

… hello Africa!

The Rock of Gibraltar, at the tip of Europe.

The Rock of Gibraltar, at the tip of Europe.

The Moroccan coastline as we approached Tangier Med.

The Moroccan coastline as we approached Tangier Med.

Back in Africa!

As soon as we drove out of the sterile port, my senses awakened in a way that can only happen in certain areas of the world (and Europe is not one of them).  There was so much to look at!  Brightly-dressed women, chaotic towns, market stalls set up on the side of the streets selling anything you could imagine, animals crossing the potholed-filled roads.

I had spent so much time thinking of the comforts I wouldn’t have access to that I’d totally forgotten about all that Africa offers to its visitors.  It only took me about five minutes of driving in Morocco to remember.  I’d get to tap into my bargaining skills in the markets again, sample cheap street food with the locals, and do my groceries on the roadsides.  Best of all, I’d never be bored while driving – there was simply too much to engage my senses.

So much to look at!

So much to look at!

So much to buy!

So much to buy!

So much chaos!

So much chaos!

Now that I was actually back in Africa, I was officially excited!  And I guess I wasn’t the only one – when Bruno saw on our customs document that our vehicle had been given a six-month stay, he immediately began talking about extending our three-month Moroccan tourist visa so we could stay longer.

I know the challenges I contemplated while driving through Andalucía will sometimes make me long for the comfort or invisibility of Europe, but on the whole, it feels really good to be back in Africa, our beloved continent.  It actually sort of feels like we’ve come home, or at least to our sweet spot.  I guess that, even if my mind doesn’t know it, my heart likes travel that comes with a healthy dose of challenge.

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